We Have to See Learning Designers for the Artists They Are

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Imagine you’re in Florence, standing in front of Michelangelo’s “David.” Now imagine you’re at the Louvre, looking at the “Mona Lisa.” The experience of engaging with these two famous pieces of art is very different—“David,” larger than life, demands to be seen at all angles, while the subtleties in the “Mona Lisa” require a closer, more stationary view to appreciate. While the subjects may be similar (a person) in both works, the media (sculpture, painting) are the primary driver of how an individual experiences the works.

The same is true in education. Previously, the “what” ( content) was both the main objective and the measure of learning. From an early age (parents asking “What did you learn in school today?”), the accumulation of facts is center stage, with the “how”—the medium—taking a back seat. However, the “how” of learning is incredibly important: it can impact if students understand a subject, how much information they retain, and their ability to extend their learning, drawing connections to other areas of academia or to the real world.

Artists have long recognized the creative possibilities and limitations in various media, and today, learning designers are beginning to do the same in education: shifting from a sole focus on the “what” to an additional focus on the “how”, and designing not just lessons, but learning environments, learning experiences and learning moments. Moving from “what” to “what + how” means design is based not only on the content, but also the medium - and that means - what tools are available, what we know about the brain and how students learn.

We are just beginning the Learning Experience Design revolution. Much as Michelangelo was a sculptor, poet, and painter—deploying each of these skills to craft many masterpieces —today’s learning designers must use all available tools to develop the most effective learning experience possible. Abraham Maslow noted, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In the education context, this rule can probably restated as: If all you have is an LMS - all you’ll end up with is some text on a web-page and some multiple choice questions. The role of the learning designer is to determine which tool is best suited to each learning objective and then to use both new technologies and old to maximize and customize the learning experience for each student and classroom.

In many ways, technology defines the breadth of options that designers have, just as the available artistic media define an artist’s options. However, that doesn’t mean that these options are pre-determined or finite. John Lasseter of Pixar noted: "Art challenges technology—technology inspires art.” Pixar used technology to transform a traditional art form—storytelling through animation—and in the process, the needs of the artists and animators drove technologists to create better tools. For example, the fur in Monster’s Inc. and Princess Merida’s hair in Brave both took years of technological research to create.

In the education space, perhaps the corollary is “pedagogy challenges technology--technology inspires pedagogy.” Pedagogy includes both the art and science of teaching, and new technologies now afford new opportunities to tackle unmet student needs. 

Today, technology-powered learning experiences can create more engaging, delightful learning experiences--whether students are online or in a traditional classroom. Arizona State University’s popular Habitable Worlds course is one example of what this can look like. In order to provide an online experience that employs pedagogical best practices, the course required technology that went well beyond the videos and readings used in the average MOOC. 

With the help of Smart Sparrow, ASU built new technology (simulations, interactive graphics, adaptive quizzes, a custom learn-space and platform for intelligent virtual field trips, to name a few) to address the needs of the course designers. At the same time, Habitable Worlds expanded the opportunities for how science could be taught, driving innovations in pedagogy. By introducing technology-based flexibility, Habitable Worlds allows for additional creativity in determining which modality is best suited to each new topic, much in the same way an artist chooses the medium with which to bring an artistic work to life.

Those of us in the education technology space must play the same role, and allow the art of learning design to challenge us. The demands of learning should push us to create the tools that learning designers need in order to create learning experiences that inspire and motivate students to learn. St. Petersburg College in Florida, for example, recently developed a learning design toolkit to help designers and faculty reimagine course design. This is a fundamental shift in how we think about ed tech tools: Rather than allowing the content to drive the technology (digitizing textbooks or flash cards), we must start with the learning experience in mind. What experience would provide the most effective way for, say, a medical student to learn about the structural changes in the heart caused by a particular disease? Reading about these changes or viewing slides is one way to learn; however, a much more dynamic approach could involve using detailed digital medical images that can zoom to the cellular level, enabling students to see the changes, then annotate the images with findings and receive automated feedback to guide the students to a correct diagnosis.

Just as user experience (UX) design has transitioned from a small specialty to an integral part of every product development, we predict that Learning Experience Design will shift from the realm of a few learning designers to a part of every educational delivery process, driving the need for new careers, such as learning design specialists and learning engineers, to make the art of learning possible via technology.

Just as artists carefully choose the best medium to express their ideas or subject, the artists of learning experience design will be able to pick the most effective tool to teach a concept or theory. In doing so, they will create a new learning experience for students, one defined by both what they’re learning as well as how they’re learning it. 

Dror Ben-Naim, PhD, is the founder Founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow and a professor of practice in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University.

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